T.J. Nelligan has spent more than 25 years in the sports marketing business. He's been to two dozen Final Fours, 15 Super Bowls and a host of other world-class events built on high-level branding and corporate partnerships.
And that’s exactly what he sees when he looks at the Special Olympics USA Games.
The national event will come to New Jersey in less than three weeks, boasting a level of corporate support that’s well beyond anything it has seen in the past. Organizers have built a budget of $20 million from mostly private sources, triple the funds raised by either of the first two USA Games — held in Iowa in 2006 and Nebraska in 2010.
“It’s going to look the way it should … like a big-time sports marketing event,” said Nelligan, the chairman of this year’s USA Games. “And that’s what it should be for the money that they’re giving us.”
More importantly, though, it will help organizers spread the message of the Special Olympics movement in a way that it never has before.
“One of our goals here was to not only put on a great event, but to promote the mission of Special Olympics and what Special Olympics can do to a family and to that potential athlete that’s not participating today,” Nelligan said.
The games will overtake central New Jersey from June 14 to 21, showcasing athletes with intellectual disabilities through 16 Olympic-style team and individual sports. What’s more, boosters say it will bring 100,000 people to the region, with a projected economic impact of nearly $120 million.
It has been four years in the making, and organizers have taken it from a mostly state- and federally-funded event to one built on a traditional sports marketing model. And they have taken full advantage of a region that’s rich with Fortune 500 companies and a robust business community.
“They bring all of their marketing horsepower,” said Bob Gobecht, president of Special Olympics North America. “Not only are they going to invest their funds, but they’re going to bring all of their employees to the events and do all of the marketing things that we couldn’t dream of doing.”
Case in point is Barnabas Health, one of 10 “founding partners” — or organizations that have pledged at least $1 million in funds or in-kind support. Some 1,200 employees from the Livingston-based hospital system are volunteering during the weeklong event, whether they’re serving as greeters or holding medical screenings and educational programs for the younger family members of the athletes
CEO Barry Ostrowsky said he has never seen an initiative “that has galvanized our employees as much” as the Special Olympics. And it’s a chance to promote the system and support a movement that aligns with its own mission: When people see Barnabas employees involved in the event, it builds their trust of the organization as a source of clinical services and social support.
“You don’t do that overnight, you don’t do that necessarily by taking an ad out in an athletic program,” Ostrowsky said. “You have to cumulatively build that notion, and I think this will go a long way in contributing to that kind of reputation for trustworthiness.”
Nelligan said he knew the committee “would raise the money to put on a world-class event” and find the venues needed to host the games. Before winning the bid for the 2014 games, the committee had nearly 100 letters of support from area companies and organizations.
But he didn’t know exactly how the organizers would spread the message of Special Olympics — that for people with intellectual disabilities, “it gives them all of the opportunities, through sport, to be accepted in your community … (and) to meet a lot of friends the same way most people did growing up.”
Nelligan knows the program well. He has been involved with Special Olympics New Jersey for 20 years as a board member and chairman, and his 24-year-old son Sean has been competing in the games for years.
So promoting the USA Games meant creating sponsorship and corporate partnership programs in the mold of the Final Four and other major events, he said. The message to corporate America was simple:
“There are a million charities knocking on doors,” he said. “And we changed the paradigm … We didn’t go out with a tin cup and say, ‘Hey, this is a great charity and here’s why.’ We said, ‘We’re going to create value for you, and your consumers are hopefully going to buy more products and services because you’re a partner.’
“No different than when someone wants to partner with the NFL or the NCAA or the Yankees or the Giants,” Nelligan said.
Efforts to gain exposure have paid off in many respects. During the pregame show for the recent Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium, Nelligan appeared to help promote the games.
“When is the Special Olympics going to get on the Super Bowl pregame show — the biggest media event in the country?” Nelligan said. The organization has had several other plans with 21st Century Fox, including a 30-minute preview show earlier this month on Fox Sports 1 and weekly profiles of athletes for the past several months.
Nelligan notes that organizers have raised $20 million for “an entrepreneurial company that’s going to be in business for one week.” Their work is done once the games have come and gone next month.
But Nelligan also hopes the legacy of the New Jersey event is a blueprint for how to organize future games, he said.
Gobecht likes the sound of that.
“We see this as the best model moving forward,” he said, though he conceded that other regions don’t have the same concentration of major corporations.
Still, Gobecht hopes some of the sponsors this year will continue their support going forward, even when it has moved on from the Garden State.
“There are some that are national or global in their business, and we’d like to think that they will give careful consideration to being involved next time,” Gobecht said.
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Lending a hand: How companies are contributing
In New Jersey, organizers of the Special Olympics USA Games ended up with 10 founding partners and 52 sponsors overall, many of whom are doing more than simply writing a check.
Wakefern Food Corp., the Edison-based merchandising and distribution arm of ShopRite, is providing food for all athletes, volunteers and coaches for the entire week. It’s also branding some 70 ShopRite products with the Special Olympics logo, allowing patrons to “see and talk about this event” just from walking down the aisles, USA Games Chairman T.J. Nelligan said.
The food service is saving the committee an estimated $1.5 million, he said, and the in-store branding is akin to that of a national sporting event.
Other sponsors such as WWE and 21st Century Fox are helping organizers with promotional campaigns and media exposure, while Barnabas Health and others are offering their employees as volunteers.
21st Century Fox
New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority
Toys ‘R’ Us